Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Warning: This Post is… Intense Yesterday, I shared on Facebook Leah McLennan’s article “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” which was written in response to the rape and murder of two Argentine female travelers in Ecuador earlier this month.  I didn’t follow the actual incident closely at the time because I stay away from depressing news but basically  Maria Coni, 22, and Marina Menegazzo, 21, did something many travelers do. When running low on money in Ecuador, they reached out to their friends for help with accommodation and were put in touch with two men who offered them a place for the night. When one woman resisted the advances of a drunk host, he hit her over the head and she was instantly killed.  The next morning, both women were found dead in garbage bags on a beach. Apparently, this event caused the Internet to erupt in discussions about solo female travel (even though these girls were traveling together) and caused many people to conclude that these women were to blame for traveling alone, or their parents were to blame for letting them travel alone, or other ridiculous accusations placed in all the wrong places.  Of course, this caused female travelers to respond speaking out against violence against women and victim blaming, with the use of #viajosola (I travel alone) hashtag trending on Twitter and a poem written by Guadalope Acosta from the perspective of the victims, (translated from Spanish) “Yesterday I was killed… But worse than death, was the humiliation that followed. From the moment they found my inert dead body nobody asked where the son of a bitch that ended my dreams, my hopes and my life was.  No, instead they started asking me useless questions… What clothes were you wearing? Why were you alone? Why would a woman travel alone?  They questioned my parents for giving me wings, for letting me be independent, like any human being. They told them we were surely on drugs and were asking for it, that we must’ve done something, that they should have looked after us… By doing what I wanted to do, I got what I deserved for not being submissive, not wanting to stay at home, for investing my own money in my dreams. For that and more, I was sentenced”.  As someone who has traveling extensively alone in dangerous countries, couchsurfed and spent time alone with probably hundreds of “strangers”, it’s pretty heart wrenching to read something like this because it could have easily happened to me, if God and my family’s rosaries weren’t keeping me safe.  Obviously, what’s even worse than thinking that I could be dead is thinking that if it did happen to me, people would blame me for being stupid or my parents for being irresponsible. Why I’ll never stop traveling solo Leah McLennan, the Australian solo traveler whose article alerted me to all this, came to a few relevant conclusions in her article, “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” but I want to add my two cents and take it one step further.  She writes that she’s been in a few sketchy situations before but fortunately, “Fortunately, I can easily recount these travel stories as none of them turned into an assault.”  She concludes that the good experiences outweigh the bad and “Ultimately, there’s no one secret to staying safe while travelling, it’s a process of being wise, planning ahead, conducting thorough research and keenly listening to your instincts. While random and shocking, the murder of the two Argentine backpackers should not hold us back from living life to the fullest and exploring whichever part of the globe we choose.” She also announces, “I have decided I will not let these negative experiences keep me at home. Besides, violence against women is present in every country in the world, including here in Australia.” I agree with all this but want to come clean about what happened to me in Kenya because, while this is true, I believe there’s even more to it. My experiences traveling alone “By leaving our safety net, we have thrown our souls upon the wind, exposing ourselves to all the fears and dangers that we sought to protect each other from, and in doing so, we have made ourselves available to experience things that… border on the magical” -Wanderlust, Elisabeth Eaves Part of the scariest, but also most magical, part of really traveling is how vulnerable it makes you.  You’re in a foreign country by yourself, potentially surrounded by unfamiliar languages, different customs, different values and if you’re a blond and blue eyed, there’s practically a neon sign floating distinguishing you as a foreigner, someone who doesn’t belong.  Whether you want to find a place to eat that won’t give you food poisoning,...

Attempt to Find the Tbilisi Yerevan Train Gone Awry: Eating Watermelon Eaters and Drinking Cha-Cha With Random Georgians

Attempt to Find the Tbilisi Yerevan Train Gone Awry: Eating Watermelon Eaters and Drinking Cha-Cha With Random Georgians

The mission: Tbilisi to Yerevan My birthday present to myself was a set of extra passport pages and fortunately, once my appointment at the embassy rolled around, it took less than an hour before I had a passport bulging with 48 extra awkwardly inserted visa pages. After checking that off my Tbilisi checklist, the next priority was getting to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. I had scoured the internet for my Tbilisi Yerevan options and the most obvious two: (1) going to a bus station, hoping one is there, wait for it to fill and then go or (2) take the notoriously slow night train. I decided to aim for the latter, since I like transport that run on schedules. I boarded the metro for station square, with instructions from my host, “You buy your train tickets at the mall. Just ask someone as you exit the station”. His advice sounded simple in theory… until I asked about two-dozen people and all I got were apologetic nods that they don’t know English. Introducing the Man Responsible for the Detour One skinny old man seemed eager to help, even though his English was non-existent as well. He seemed to grasp that I wanted to go to Yerevan and started to walk with me in the direction of a building that hovered above train tracks, which looked promising. I think I also communicated that I needed to buy a ticket and when he realized this, he animatedly proposed an alternate plan. I thought he said he was driving to Yerevan, in an hour and a half, at 7 PM. He turned us around and suggested I wait with him. The whole way back to the local joint, I asked people for “English? English?” to ensure I was understanding the man correctly but to no avail. Although I didn’t understand anything he was saying, he questioned me curiously and babbled animatedly about America. He stopped drinking after one beer and made a driving motion with his hands, which I thought looked promising. After about an hour, two younger guys joined us, one of which supposedly spoke English but not to an extent that he could de-mystify the situation. The guys ordered khinkali (Georgian dumplings) for the table to share and I tried to play Pictionary on a napkin to confirm the plan for the evening. The English speaker repeated the one English phrase he knew, “no problem, no problem”. After a few toasts that I didn’t understand and taking turns using the restroom (which looked like a good sign to begin a road trip), when the clock hit 7:00 PM, we abandoned the uneaten food and piled in the car. Unexpected Evening Entertainment We made a pit-stop for ice cream then they drove to the international bus station, where fortunately the ticket seller did speak English. However, the outlook didn’t look good: I was the only passenger interested in going to Yerevan so the next bus may not head out until the next morning. My Georgian guides weren’t concerned- we left our cell phone number, piled into the car, stopped at a market then all of a sudden we were at a lake. They used a plastic bag to cover a seat for me to plop down on and ceremoniously prepared the watermelon, cutting mammoth slices and passing them around. After a round or two of melon, out came the cha-cha, which they insisted I drink in the traditional Georgian manner with the old man. When he seemed eager for a second shot, it became clear that he wasn’t driving anywhere this evening. And so the evening progressed… watermelon and cha cha and lots of words exchanged that no one really understood. After waiting three hours, some selfies, declined invitations to go swimming and not having received a phone call from the bus company, I gestured that I wanted to be returned home to my previous host. They repeated, “no problem, no problem” and urged me to relax. Eventually, I got them to pile in the car and handed them the written address. But a direct delay to where I wanted to go would have been too easy. First, we got ourselves stuck in a ditch and the three shirtless men and had to wave down recruits from the road to help get us unstuck. After finally escaping the weeds, they headed to the address I provided, offering to pick me up the next morning. One episode of “Hangover -level absurdity and a failed transport transfer was enough for me so I thanked them graciously but politely declined and ran out of the car, into my previous...

Navigating The Old City: Mtskheta, Georgia

Navigating The Old City: Mtskheta, Georgia

After a weekend of being spoiled by having my own personal Tbilisi tour guide, it was time for me to explore Georgia on my own. Gela recommended I see Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, just 20 kilometers outside the modern city center. He flagged me down a cheap cab, instructed the driver to drop me off at the bus station and wished me luck. When the bus dropped me off at a semi-circular turn-around where mini-buses, cabs and personal vehicles were playing an extra-dangerous-version-of-Traffic-Jam, I realized I needed his well wishes. This area wasn’t just a bus station- it was a crossroads of everything coming together at an accelerated city pace: a marketplace of fruit vendors, animal killers (well, meat sellers), flea market of household supplies, a playground for children in addition to the haphazard collection of vehicles. I walked around with a paper that read “Mtskheta”, looking for someone to help me navigate the cryptic Georgian script that might be written on a piece of paper and taped to a bus window… if you’re lucky. Eventually, someone pointed me to an unlabelled ticket window behind a pharmacy, I handed the lady a 1 lari coin and hopped on an (also unlabelled) minibus, hoping that it would take me to the right place because she didn’t really speak English and there was no obvious schedule. Fortunately, I was one of the last people needed to fill the bus so moments later, we lurched off into the agricultural lands surrounding the capital. After 30-40 minutes, the bus reached its final stop and the driver urged me to get off at another semi-circular turn around, this one much more non-descript and less crazy than the previous. I spotted two men with a guidebook and flocked to them like a moth to a flame. It turns out that these two older gentlemen were from Poland, visiting their buddy at the Polish consulate. They were more than happy to allow me to tag along as long as I took occasional photos for them (and with them) and nodded and smiled when they launched into huge political conversations about Al Gore and Hilary Clinton running for president. One of the pair lived in Texas for a couple years, loved the fact that I was from a conservative state (North Carolina) and couldn’t wait to discuss the latest Republican victories. Unfortunately, I was ill-suited to contribute anything substantial to this conversation but he was so enthusiastic that my occasional nods and smiles tended to appease him. St. Nino Church Following his guidebook, he led us to the first stop: St. Nino church. I already forget the story behind this particular place except that people who lived close by tended to wear black, even if they weren’t actual nuns or monks and there was no funeral to attend. This depressing clothing didn’t seem to be a town-wide fashion trend but one woman explained that it was traditional for the area on a daily basis. On our way out, we found an ancient bearded man in red velvet with an imposing staff, surrounded by a crowd of villagers. One (who spoke Russian) communicated to my Polish translators that he was a very special saint and that we were lucky to meet him. We nodded admiringly. However, this saint man seemed to be more excited about meeting us and started to pose for pictures. We appeased him with a few photos then moved on. Up until this point, Mtskheta seemed to be an unremarkable, rather ordinary town and we weren’t sure why it earned the UNESCO seal of approval but it became clear as we rounded the bend and approached Svititskhovelli Cathedral. With support from the United States and several other countries, they renovated the cobblestone streets and filled the curvy streets with small country cottages. They remodeled the buildings so recently and pristinely, the area has an artificial Disney-World-esque but it’s definitely a cute and relaxing place to hang out. The village surrounds the mammoth Svetitskhoveli Cathedral (another UNESCO site), which has been the burial site for Georgian kings for centuries. The church was constructed way back in the 4th century, supposedly over the grave where Christ’s shirt was buried. Supposedly, the pillar placed over this site, while building the church, levitated in the air until St. Nino commanded it to return to earth. To this day, people go on pilgrimages to see this “life-giving pillar” that has cured diseases, and allegedly illuminated light and radiated fragrances over the years. Great Views From Javi Monastery Our final major (UNESCO) stop in the town was Javi monastery, overlooking the estuary of two local...

Sightseeing in “the city that loves you”: Tbilisi attractions (Georgia)

Sightseeing in “the city that loves you”: Tbilisi attractions (Georgia)

For such a small country, surrounded by powerhouses like Russia and Turkey, it blows my mind how Georgia has maintained a truly distinct cultural identity for over 9,000 years. I had no idea this civilization was so ancient but many of the most important aspects of today’s society go back multiple millennia. Archeologist found traces of wine production from 8000 BC. They have their own language group, completely unrelated to Indo-European or Semantic languages, and use a distinct alphabet (one of only 14 in the world). Georgia’s religious roots go date to the 4th century, when it became the second nation to adopt Christianity! You can still see a strong Orthodox influence today through the countless churches, women with headscarves at the ready on Sundays and taxi drivers/bus passengers who frantically make the sign of the cross three times every time we drive through an intersection. Sometimes I wondered how such a religious people could drink so much but they don’t seem to find God and wine mutually exclusive. The Georgian cross is wrapped in grape leaves, for heaven’s sake. Geographically and culturally, Georgia is at a crossroads between Central Asia, Russia, Europe and the Middle East (I didn’t even know how to categorize it for my blog… I decided to follow one of my other guidebooks and chose Asia) but despite being a stop of the Silk Road, it doesn’t seem to reflect these other cultures too obviously. Even in the capital city, the overwhelming majority of restaurants serve Georgian cuisine, which is different from what neighboring countries eat. You can find a few pizzerias, fast-food kabob places, Arabic hookah lounges and McDonalds near metro stops but most people are chowing down on khacapuri (the omnipresent favorite snack of Georgians: cheese pie) and hachapuri (cheese and egg in a boat-shaped bread). The handicrafts remind me a bit of Albania (probably the Soviet influence), with knitted socks and dusty silver jewelry, but with quite a few more drinking horns and shag-rug hats. However, I’ve only found one mosque and barely any Asian influence, except for a half-dozen assorted tourists (which seems very low, compared to what I’ve seen in other countries). Walking around Tbilisi, a European influence can be seen in its cobblestone streets and cafes but the city combines old and new in a novel fashion. So how do you see this all for yourself?   Walking tour of Tbilisi: Exploring the Old City Gela and I started at Metakhi church, which was the perfect place to look out over the river and the Old City’s colorful houses climbing the hill. I made a half-hearted attempt to peak inside but it was Sunday and bustling with women with their heads covered, knawing on loaves of bread. From there, we boarded the aerial cable car for panoramic views of city beneath us… the old European-esque houses cuddled up hillside and with glass buildings in swooping shapes in the more modern part below. From above, we walked along the ridge to the base of the “Mother Georgia” statue, who watches over the city holding a bowl of wine (of course!) for friends in one hand and a sword in the other. We backtracked 1.5 km or so along the ridge, climbing the Nikala Fortress for views of the city in front of us and the Botanic Garden behind. We slipped down lumpy steps to descend back down in the Old Town and walked through the notable Shardeni (atmospheric but overpriced street of cafes) and Shaveteli (site of an amazingly quirky clock tower outside the puppet theatre) streets. After watching kids do roller blade tricks at the skate park and couples canoodle by water fountains in another shaded park, we arrived at Dry Bridge Bazaar. This daily gathering of locals selling knick-knacks is a flea market on steroids… swords, silverware, trinkets, electronics laid out on blankets sprawled over several blocks! A bit farther down, the random collection of objects evolved into paintings and art. The art varied widely but in general, the paintings had a cartoon-y, colorful, cheerfulness that I really appreciate. We ended our walking tour by circling back by Parliament (which they redecorated to obscure Soviet symbols) and ending in Liberty Square, a central focus point of the Old City. Overall, Tbilisi is a great place to wander… the city is scattered with statues, beautiful buildings and public gardens. Most main streets in the city have over-renovated buildings to be almost too pristine but some of my favorites were the tired backstreets that housed sagging structures with peeling paint. Other Tbilisi Attractions: Mtatsminda Mountain My second couch surfing host, Hayder, took me up another...

Local Life in Tbilisi: Georgian Culture, Food and Drink

Local Life in Tbilisi: Georgian Culture, Food and Drink

The birthplace of wine, a country filled with hospitable locals, mountain vistas and a mix of Ottoman, Soviet, Basque, Western and Eastern cultures… how could I possibly say no? After a week of enjoying delicious food, Orhan’s incredibly welcoming and loving family and many cooking lessons (I still may release a recipe or two), my feet started itching and decided that I could no longer resist Georgia’s siren call.  Altering my plan to stay in Turkey for the whole month, I booked a flight and in less than 24 hours, I was off! Flying to a place with no real plan except to figure it out when I got there (recently, I’ve discovered that can be the best possible plan). “Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” ― John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America My arrival in Georgia was pretty seamless- after months of travel in relatively undeveloped, low-income countries, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things. Landing at an airport where the immigration man smiled as he stamped my passport and said, “welcome”, where the wireless connection worked and the ATM was obvious (the Greeks like to hide them away) made me love the country already. After a crazy cab ride with a chain-smoking, pot-bellied man who tried to avoid all of my questions about cost with “no problem, no problem”, I arrived at a relatively random location in average-man-land-Tbilisi to meet Gela, my first couch surfing host in Georgia. Gela was a genuine, gracious, gentleman, born and raised in Georgia and the perfect person to introduce me to hospitable and traditional Georgian culture. After dropping off my bags, we headed to the foot of his apartment complex to wade through a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. I was familiar with most of them but he picked up a few items that I’ve never seen and still can’t identify even with a failed google image hunt this morning. I tried some nuts on a vine that you crack with your teeth and eat fresh and a sour, green, pitted, cherry-like fruit that tastes even stranger when they make it into a sauce to dip French-fries into, etc. (it’s an acquired taste, apparently!). After our appetizer of strange fruits, we tossed together a salad of ultra-fresh veggies and Gela whipped up a weird (but delicious!) dressing of mayonnaise, khmeli suneli (Georgian spice mix which often includes coriander, dill, basil, bay leaf, marjoram, blue fenugreek, parsley, safflower or saffron, black pepper, celery, thyme, hyssop, mint, and hot pepper) and fresh basil. With some food in our bellies, we decided to take advantage of the sunshine and grab our towels for an afternoon at Lisi Lake. Fresh Air at Lisi Lake Upon arrival, it was obvious that we weren’t the only ones who decided to frolic in the sunshine… the beach was abuzz with people sunbathing, swimming and socializing on it’s shores (after spending many cloudy days here, retrospectively, I realize how good the weather was for swimming!). We met up with two of Gela’s friends and hung out until sunset. From there, we headed to a traditional Georgian restaurant in the Old City. We headed down to the brick basement, with walls lined with pictures of people dancing in grapes in top-heavy hats and a live chef pushing paddles of dough into an oven in the corner. We grabbed a table, ordered some beers and the boys started toasting. Drinking Culture in Georgia Georgia is definitely a country with a drinking culture after spending time with Gela, I realized there were layers of subtleties that would probably take me a lifetime to master. From what I’ve gathered, typically, at a table, you have one person who leads the toasts for the evening (tamada).  In addition to being expected to create eloquent toasts, the tamada watches over the flow of conversation and sets the speed of drinking for...